Rated: A double-thump, and 5 out of 5 Oo-oos
What a pleasure for the reader to see an already fine novelist grow and get even better with his skill and commitment to excellence. Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan’s past works were fine, much more than competent novels, but his newest—UNIVERSE OF TWO—is what Italians art aficionados would call, il tuo capolavoro— his masterpiece.
Kiernan continues a theme introduced in his last novel, THE BAKER’S SECRET— a sympathetic and agonizing study of the effects of war—effects not on the combatants, but on the civilians who stand witness to the conflict. Where BAKER’S concentrated on their physical needs and discomfort, UNIVERSE peals the layers off the blistering emotional damage wrought in wartime. As one character says, “Maybe the purpose of war is not to kill soldiers on the battlefield, but to break hearts at home. Breaker of the most hearts wins.”
Charlie Fish is a brilliant but meek mathematician who is drafted by the U. S. government to figure out how activate “the Gadget,” the euphemistic name for the atom bomb that will end World War II at the cost of incinerating the 200,000 civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (All told, our side killed roughly the same number of innocent civilians in World War II as Hitler killed Jews.) The story of Charlie’s ethical torture is intertwined with the burgeoning love he has for Brenda, a self-centered and immature young Chicago shopkeeper and musician.
The suffering humanity of these two characters does not leap off the page, but rather it drags the reader into their world, a world of conflicting emotions and paralyzing foibles.
The novel’s brilliant attention to details of everything from developing the electronic materials necessary to ignite an atomic bomb, to the art of playing classical pieces of music on a church organ, show a devotion to research and reportage rarely found in modern best-selling fiction.
The slang of the 1940’s permeates the dialogue, with lines full of “smooching” and “sashaying.”
The total package of a captivating novel is right there on the page. And who knows, maybe Kiernan’s talent and his dedication to plot structure and detail have yet to peak.